Knowledge, Power, Banking


"Knowledge is power" isn’t just a slogan tossed around by polo-necked

post-modernists. It’s a maxim by which international capital lives. Want proof?

Later this month, the World Bank will launch a prototype website that

demonstrates amply their aim to control the Third world by controlling what is,

and is not, officially thinkable.

This

has important real-world consequences. This is no ordinary website. More than

your average newspaper or magazine, the World Bank’s talk matters. As lead

lender in most donor consortia in developing countries, the Bank shapes the flow

of vast sums of money – not only the Bank’s own but also those of Northern

taxpayers’ aid programmes. The Bank has managed to achieve this pre-eminence by

positioning itself as the institution with the most experience, professionalism,

and knowledge, in international development. It has achieved this position

through a multimillion dollar drive to corner the market in ‘research’ in

developing countries. Through successive iterations of knowledge production, by

bankrolling rafts of consultants on ‘missions’ to developing countries , and

assisted by the atrophy of national development budgets, the World Bank finds

itself primus inter pares in the international capitalist development community.

It’s a position where its money talks and its talk monies

The

World Bank Development Gateway, http://developmentgateway.org is the newest

weapon in its arsenal. It is a multimillion dollar web portal that aims, in the

words of its draft business plan, to "solve development problems by sharing

high-quality information from local and national sources, tailored to users’

needs by topic and community". This faintly comic management-speak isn’t all hot

air. To be fair, some problems *will* be solved by the site. In the world of

international development, it is often hard to find out what different aid

agencies are up to. The site will contain a database about aid agency projects,

which will be useful to those with web access in both developing and developed

countries who want to be able to monitor the often controversial activities of

these agencies. There’ll also be a mini Amazon.com-style bookstore for those

unable to order their books through a locally owned store, and news provided by

that fund of grassroots development information, the Financial Times.

If

this were all the Bank intended to do, the site would be a marginally useful

addition to the current rash of development-information portals on the web. It

gets worse, though. The centerpiece of the site is an edited section of 140

policy forums, monitored by ‘topic guides’. These digital sherpas are tasked

with plucking the best morsels of information on the web in their specialist

areas, following murkily defined ‘quality’ criteria, and presenting them to the

general public. It is this attempt to provide a strictly policed one-stop shop

for ‘knowledge for development’ that has caused a great deal of consternation

among independent researchers and activists.

The

problem starts with the assumptions of the project. “’Knowledge for development’

is defined at the very outset as something that the poor lack” notes Lyla Mehta,

a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex. “This not only

legitimises bureaucratic intervention into new areas concerning the lives of the

poor [but t]he standing of poor people’s knowledge is diminished and is made out

to be something inferior and not universally applicable.”

 

A Bit

of History

The

idea of an institution controlling knowledge in order to legitimize a political

agenda and subjugate the poor isn’t new. Here’s a quote from Bank President

James Wolfensohn’s speech at the Bank’s 1996 Annual meeting. “Knowledge is like

light. Weightless and intangible, it can easily travel the world, enlightening

the lives of people everywhere. Yet billions of people still live in the

darkness of poverty – unnecessarily (…) Poor countries –and poor people- differ

from rich ones not only because they have less capital but because they have

less knowledge.”

“The

parallels with the first chapter of St John’s Gospel are striking”, says Mehta.

This is a particularly appropriate comparison. In its near monopoly control over

knowledge, money and governance, the Bank’s Gospel in developing countries has

its precedent in the Christian Church’s work in Early Modern Europe and

colonialism. The dispatch of a battalion of consultants from head office isn’t

called ‘a mission’ for nothing. The idea of an ‘information society’ isn’t as

new as its more breathless adherents would like to think; the use of

‘information’ to subjugate and control has a long and bloody history.

Tchnology has changed, though, and with the move from pulpit to net, so have the

tactics of knowledge management. An unnamed WTO official said, in the wake of

the Battle of Seattle, that the confrontation between capitalism and dissent was

lost not in the streets or in the conference center, but on the internet. And it

was at the Seattle Ministerial that James Wolfensohn, the Bank president, is

rumoured to have met Bill Gates, and when the idea of a ‘development knowledge

portal’ was first mooted.

The

truth of this doesn’t matter much – the parallels between the two are

instructive. At the time of writing, Microsoft has been found guilty of monopoly

practices. It is a charge that can, with some accuracy, be leveled against the

Bank’s own behaviour. The market in knowledge on the internet isn’t a free one,

even if it costs relatively little for certain Northern consumers to access it.

Suppliers cannot enter as they wish, and some providers – notably the Bank –

have a stranglehold on the market.

Some

argue that if the Bank’s site is no good, people simply won’t use it. Consumers

of knowledge on the net aren’t however, perfectly informed. The Bank spends a

great deal of time and money investing in giving its products the look and feel

of impartiality, and it’s hard to distinguish the genuinely useful from the

morass of verbiage. To muddy this further, top academics are contracted to

manufacture knowledge under the Bank’s brand. The products of this process are

different, however, from the materials that flow from conventional academic

journals – only the smallest fraction of the Bank’s output is peer reviewed.

Despite this major flaw, the Bank’s branding has been remarkably successful – it

has over the last twenty years become the most widely cited authority on

development issues.

Alex

Wilks of the Bretton Woods Project argues that this impartiality is

disingenuous. "The World Bank has never been a neutral knowledge broker, it has

always been influenced by narrow economic ideologies and the views of the

powerful governments which run it. Its new site appears to be balanced and

independent, but its structure, editorial approach and governance are again

weighted against those who challenge orthodox views. The Gateway will give the

World Bank and its allies the opportunities to further consolidate their

approaches and may damage the continued growth of a genuinely pluralistic set of

websites on poverty issues."

 

A Bit

of Proof

As

with all exercises in thought control, the veneer of objectivity is vital for

the Development Gateway. This is promulgated both in its structure and content.

Structurally, the gateway will be guided by a Foundation independent of the

Bank. This is true. Technically. But consider that very few concrete details

have been released about the constitution of the Board of this Foundation. “The

only sure way to get on is to chip in 5 million dollars to become a founding

member,” says Wilks. “Rumours are that the Board will comprise the Bank, two

private sector companies, four or more governments and a couple of civil society

representatives, though it remains unclear who, how many, or on what basis these

people will ‘represent’”. In any case, when the key structuring and operating

decisions have already been taken by the Bank, and when the Bank will have a

seat on the board of this body, we may not be unreasonable in thinking that this

body will have all the freedom of clockwork.

The

Bank also purports to democratize the process of knowledge generation and

dissemination through an interactive ranking system. Users are invited to rate

just how helpful or useless a particular piece of information is, and these

votes are collated online for future users. This is not, sadly, what democracy

looks like. It’s dot.communitarianism masquerading as universalism.

The

technology hides a digitally, and hence socially and economically, gated

community in which the voices of those privileged enough to have internet access

are amplified – less than 30% of users of the Bank’s existing site come from

outside the United States – while dissenters and the poor are muffled. "In the

end it will just give more prominence to those who are already having no trouble

making their voices heard", says Wilks.

 

A Bit

of Trouble

Even

though the site hasn’t been launched yet, it is already in trouble. There have,

for instance, already been exclusions. Clicking on the feedback section of the

site, and looking for Vanessa von Struensee’s posts is instructive. Hers is a

long correspondence with the editors of one of the sections, in which her

attempts to post a report on truth commissions were rebuffed. If this is the

response to a professor of law asking for a perfectly reasonable contribution to

be posted before the site is officially launched, there are grounds to worry

about centralisation and control of knowledge.

The

creation of the development gateway hasn’t even followed the Bank’s standard

operations guidelines. In an appeal to the Bank’s Fraud and Corruption

Investigation Department, two Uruguayan activists have charged the Bank with

misuse and gross waste of funds, and “even fraud and misleading public opinion”.

They note that no-one but the Bank’s highest echelons wants the site – no

beneficiaries have asked for it, and in African and Latin American

consultations, civil society rejected the gateway, and raised criticisms that

have been cosmetically brushed aside. Spending $7 million dollars of money

intended to help the poor on a public relations project is rude fraud indeed.

This

is why a gamut of scholars, researchers, teachers, politicians and other

‘knowledge workers’ (I know, I know, it’s an unlovely phrase) have pledged to

avoid using the gateway, and to support alternative sources of knowledge.

The

rejection of the gateway has been compared by some scholars to the 1933

Buecherverbrennung in Nazi Germany in which unacceptable, non-Ayran books were

torched. The comparison is unfortunate, and showing why is important. Refusing

to confer legitimacy on the Bank’s project through non-participation is an act

of resistance to totalitarianism, not complicity with it. Susan George, a writer

and activist in Europe, was one of the first to sign on to the recent

declaration boycotting the World Bank’s initiative. Her objection to the Bank’s

initiative is this: "[i]f you can occupy the mind you don’t have to worry about

the rest, people will not even be able to ask the right questions much less

provide the answers. The systematisation of knowledge according to the criteria

of the dominant class is a constant in the history of the struggle for change."

If anyone is guilty of anti-intellectualism and close-mindedness, it is the

Bank, not the protesters.

The

Bank’s site is aimed at knowledge workers; as such workers we have far more

power than we think we do. Rejecting the site meets the Bank on its own terms,

refusing to cooperate with candied enticements to huddle under its Big Tent,

Republican-style. There are alternatives out there, and given the limited time

and resources available to us, we’re better off following a process of

‘constructive disengagement’, to use a phrase from the Southern African Peoples’

Solidarity Network (SAPSN).

This

declaration is not, in other words, the cyber-equivalent of book burning. It is

a vote of confidence in alternatives. There are already fine portals for

‘development knowledge’, if you’re looking on the net. ZNet, A-infos, and the

Indymedia collective are among the most prominent English language ones. It is

our responsibility to use them. At a time when the forces of international

capital want to smother thinking about different ways to live, fighting for the

space to think about alternatives is a revolutionary act.

For

more information on the Development Gateway, including the anti-corruption

appeal, visit

http://www.brettonwoodsproject.org/

topic/knowledgebank/

To

sign on to the Declaration, visit http://voiceoftheturtle.org/gateway or send an

email to

gateway@voiceoftheturtle.org with your name and organization in the subject

line (though signing the declaration is done in an individual capacity and in no

way implied any institutional endorsement).

About

the Author

Raj

Patel, a former researcher for the World Bank, is a co-editor of The Voice of

the Turtle (www.voiceoftheturtle.org). He is based in Zimbabwe, where he is

currently completing his research on gender and resistance to economic

liberalisation, for a doctorate at Cornell University’s Department of Rural

Sociology.

 

 

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